Can art transcend prison’s grim reality?

Marlene Dumas, Oscar Wilde (2016) c. Marcus J Leith Courtesy of Artangel

Earlier this year Reading prison was opened to the public in a tribute to its most famous inmate Oscar Wilder. We invited Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform to review the exhibition. This article appears in Proof magazine, issue 2. It features articles by Alex Cavendish, David Rose, Eric Allison, Ian Cobain and others (here).

Reading prison, which opened in 1844, has the familiar cruciform design of the time, and the art is arranged along the wings of cells spanning out from the central atrium.

There are also readings of Oscar Wilde’s letter-cum-essay De Profundis staged on Sundays in the prison chapel. In the words of the organisers, Artangel, the work on display responds to ‘the work of the prison’s most famous inmate Oscar Wilde, the architecture of the prison and themes of imprisonment and separation’.

Separation was certainly the hallmark of Reading in Victorian times, as it operated the so-called Separate System, which saw prisoners isolated from each other for 23 hours a day. Even when they were allowed out in order to exercise or worship in the prison chapel, individuals were forced to wear a hood preventing eye contact with other prisoners. As Wilde records in his The Ballad of Reading Gaol, hangings also took place on the prison grounds.

Being someone who once organised a reading outside Pentonville prison with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, to protest restrictions on sending prisoners books, which we entitled ‘The Ballad of Not Reading in Gaol’, I was interested to attend the exhibition, and not just with my Howard League hat on. But when I first entered the prison it has to be said the oppressive nature of the environment did rather weigh on me. If anything, the presence of an art exhibition – and the sort of lovely people you might expect to attend such an art exhibition – actually made me feel more uncomfortable than I would have if visiting an operational prison, a task I have conducted a fair few times.


Marlene Dumas, Jean Genet (2016) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016

Artistic tension
I explored A Wing first, where I found myself initially troubled to find painted portraits by Marlene Dumas hanging on the walls of individual prison cells. There was nothing wrong with the work itself – paintings of another prison writer, Jean Genet, and people in his life – but I was not sure what the point of displaying it in a cell actually was.

Then I realised that this tension between the art and the environment was of course part of the whole point of the exhibition. We are meant to be troubled by the placing of art in a space so engraved with a history of human misery. I am not sure all my fellow exhibition-goers were contemplating this (there were a few outbursts of voyeuristic excitement at times) but gradually, as we worked our way around the prison, this tension surely became inescapable.

The best artists played on the tension to help create their effects. American photographer Nan Goldin covers one cell in images (some nude) of a handsome man, described as a muse by the exhibition’s programme, and the contrast with the usual nudes seen plastered to the walls of prison cells was clear. At the same time, Goldin brilliantly projected a scene of two gay lovers kissing (from Jean Genet’s film, Un Chant d’Amour) against the wall of one cell, while forcing the viewer to take it in through the cell door’s peep hole. This not only replicates what is actually going on in the film (the gay lovers are prisoners being watched by a warder) but speaks to the voyeurism underlying the exhibition as a whole.


Nan Goldin, The Boy c. James Lingwood Courtesy of Artangel

Similarly subversive was the staging of work by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, where somewhat gaudy plastic bead curtains were strung across the doorways of cells. Also powerful was Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Fear), which confronts viewers in one cell with a blue mirror hanging on a wall. Further along, in C Wing, I was also struck by Robert Gober’s sculptures and his meditation on inner and outer lives. In Treasure Chest, the eponymous chest is sunk into the prison floor and reveals the torso of a woman, and in that torso there is a cavity displaying a flowing riverbed. In Waterfall, the running water motif is again used, this time appearing in an aperture in the back of a man’s suit jacket.

As well as visual art, a number of writers have been commissioned to write letters, also on display in cells and accompanied by audio recordings. They include a moving letter from Gillian Slovo to her murdered mother, the anti-apartheid campaigner Ruth First. But perhaps the two best letters are both produced by poets. The Canadian Anne Carson imagines a letter from Socrates to Krito, on the evening before the philosopher must drink from the hemlock cup. This is a rather droll exercise which does succeed in leavening the mood: ‘My life is guys, guys and drinking. I’m a talker. I believe in talk. Rip the lid off.’

Also striking is the Welsh poet and novelist Joe Dunthorne’s letter, which mimics the theme of confinement by restricting itself to only one vowel: the letter ‘e’. The effect is suitably creepy: ‘Eleven pm, the bell knells then we enter deep sleep’; although Dunthorne’s narrator does do much better on the food front than real prisoners would: ‘Elevenses, they serve sweet crêpes.’


Steve McQueen, The Weight c.Marcus J. Leith Courtesy of Artangel

It was a sculpture by Steve McQueen, perhaps best known for directing the film 12 Years A Slave. which made me finally decide that in the tension between art and prison, the prison ultimately wins out. McQueen’s sculpture is of a prison bed, shrouded in a gold-plated mosquito net which funnels upwards, as if suggesting transcendence or escape. Yet sadly, I do not think any of the art on display in Reading successfully manages to transcend the grim facts of the prison.

This was summed up by the single most compelling display – which was not an artwork but of photographs of Reading prisoners from the late nineteenth century. These bleak portraits of men, women and children were taken because they were considered likely recidivists (Wilde is not included among them, as he was not thought to be at risk of reoffending) and in each photograph, the prisoner holds out their hands (considered useful evidence). The effect is simultaneously perplexing and sad.

If I had one final reflection on my day in Reading prison, it was that much attention had been paid by the exhibition organisers, and the writers and artists, to the prison’s Victorian history. That is understandable. But there was little if any reflection on the fact that as recently as 2013 this crumbling, claustrophobic hole held over 300 young men not even 21 years of age. Wilde had it right.

The vilest deeds like poison weeds

Bloom well in prison-air

It is only what is good in Man

That wastes and withers there.

From The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Inside – Artists and Writers in Reading Prison ran September to October 2016. The Ministry of Justice gave permission for the prison to be opened to the public – apparently, the first time it has happened.

Profile photo of Andrew Neilson About Andrew Neilson
Andrew is director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Print Friendly
Skip to toolbar